(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.)
General Debate Opens
The General Debate of the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly began on Tuesday. A week-long procession of world leaders participated, largely through pre-recorded video messages. The theme of the this year’s general debate is “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.” Volkan Bozkir, President of the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly, opened the General Debate by stating “the context in which we are working serves to remind us of the necessity of the multilateralism system.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the necessity of multilateralism, reminding delegates that, “in an interconnected world, it is high time to recognize a simple truth: solidarity is self-interest. If we fail to grasp that fact, everyone loses.”
World Leaders Call for Multilateralism
Calls for renewed multilateralism were echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron who issued a dire assessment of the state of the U.N., noting that “our shared house is in disorder,” and stating that the institution’s “foundations are hollowed out. Its walls are sometimes cracked by the blows of those who built it.” Macron was joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who stated that, “anyone who thinks he can get along better on his own is mistaken. Our well-being is shared. And so is our suffering”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday, “we believe that the U.N. prestige could strengthen and enhance the role of the humanitarian or human component in multilateral and bilateral relations”; he went on to suggest cultural and scientific exchanges to strengthen cross-border ties. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and South Korean President Moon Jae-in each issued statements underscoring the importance of multilateralism in overcoming the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Munir Akram, president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council said Tuesday “we are confronted with a triple challenge: recovering from COVID-19, realizing the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and avoiding the looming climate catastrophe.” Akram further noted that “such cooperation cannot be promoted anywhere except within the United Nations and its family of organizations.”
Calls for Security Council Reform
Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “comprehensive reforms” of the U.N. on Tuesday. “Leaving the fates of 7 billion people up to the justice of five countries is neither sustainable nor fair” he said. “In order to empower the U.N. system, we must first reform the Security Council,” Erdogan added, concluding that “we can’t overcome today’s challenges through structures designed for the needs of the previous century”. President Erdogan was joined by foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi of Japan, who, on Tuesday, made a case for expanding the number of permanent members to make the council “an effective and representative organ” that reflects the realities of the international community. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also joined the calls for reforms by stating that the United Nations faces a “crisis of confidence” unless it undergoes “comprehensive reforms”. Prime Minister Modi’s statement on Tuesday comes on the eve of India taking a seat at the U.N. Security Council as an elected non-permanent member for a two-year term. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed out that “too often the U.N. Security Council is blocked when clear decisions are needed.” “We need reform” the Chancellor concluded.
Trump Presses for Snapback of Iranian Sanctions
Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump announced a series of new punitive measures on Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Speaking on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States “will return to the United Nations to reimpose sanctions so that the arms embargo will become permanent” further adding that “we believe deeply that this is good for the peoples of all nations.”
In a joint statement on Sept. 20, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (E3) stated that any attempt by the United States to impose sanctions on countries not complying with the U.N. sanctions was legally void. The E3 statement read: “the United States of America ceased to be a participant in the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] following their withdrawal from the deal on 8 May, 2018. Consequently, the purported notification under paragraph 11 of U.N.S.C.R. 2231 (2015), received from the United States of America and circulated to the U.N. Security Council members, is incapable of having legal effect. It flows from this that any decisions and actions which would be taken based on this procedure…would also be incapable of having any legal effect.”
Afghanistan Confronts Five “Drivers of Turmoil”
In an address on Monday, President Ashraf Ghani highlighted five “drivers of turmoil” in Afghanistan. These include the coronavirus pandemic, asymmetrical warfare, global terrorism, climate change, and an unprecedented explosion of inequality. Ghani noted that “though we are facing multiple drivers of turmoil, there’s a clear and urgent priority for us, and that is a ceasefire“. Addressing the General Assembly on Wednesday, Ghani noted “peace remains our most urgent and important priority.” Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are ongoing in Doha, Qatar.
Global Famine: “Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since WWII”
The COVID-19 pandemic will cause global famine “of biblical proportions within a few short months,” David Beasley executive director of the World Food Program (WFP) has warned. Beasley advised members of the U.N. that global famine would bring “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II”. The annual WFP report published on Tuesday estimated that 135 million people face “crisis-level” hunger. However, the WFP report conducted most of its data collection prior to the pandemicwhich could push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation – nearly double the initial estimate. Mr. Beasley further noted that worsening crises like those in Yemen and Syria, and more frequent natural disasters, as well as the pandemic meant the world was “facing a perfect storm” of food insecurity.
“A Faint But Real Ray of Hope” for Syrian Constitutional Negotiations
According to Special Envoy for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, the third round of discussions aimed at charting a path out of the near decade-long conflict is showing promise. Issuing a briefing to the Security Council last Friday, Pedersen noted that while there remain “very real” differences on substance, a “faint but real ray of hope” emerged with the convening in Geneva of the Constitutional Committee. The Committee is tasked with reviewing and amending Syria’s 2012 Constitution. On the security front, Pedersen noted that “there is a growing acknowledgement among many key actors that there truly is no military solution,” concluding that “the only way forward is a negotiation and a political settlement.” For now, the immediate priority is for the co-chairs to agree on an agenda.
U.S. – China Tensions Highlighted in General Debate
“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague on to the world – China,” President Donald Trump said in his televised remarks issued Tuesday. “In the earliest days of the virus China locked down travel domestically, while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world. China condemned my travel ban on their country, even as they cancelled domestic flights and locked citizens in their homes,” he added. Chinese President, Xi Jinping, speaking shortly after Trump said his country had “no intention to enter a Cold War with any country.” Xi further remarked that China “will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation”.
Duterte Defends 2016 Arbitral Ruling on South China Sea
Speaking on Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gave a forceful defense of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling favoring the Philippines in its dispute with Beijing regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea. Addressing the General Assembly Tuesday, Duterte said the 2016 decision “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” Duterte added.
Saudi King Salman Decries “Iran Expansionism”
Addressing the General Assembly on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz said, “our experience with the Iranian regime has taught us that partial solutions and appeasement did not stop its threats to international peace and security … A comprehensive solution and a firm international position are required.” The Saudi King stated that Iran had exploited a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers “to intensify its expansionist activities, create its terrorist networks, and use terrorism,” adding this had produced nothing but “chaos, extremism, and sectarianism.” Iran’s U.N. mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi called the statements “baseless” and added, “The unconstructive and unwarranted statement by the Saudi leader only emboldens certain powers who are intent in sowing discord among regional countries with the aim of creating permanent division and selling more deadly weapons to the region.”
Maduro Invites U.N. to Monitor Elections
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has invited the United Nations to monitor its upcoming national elections. In a recorded speech to the general assembly on Tuesday, Maduro stated, “we have invited the Secretary-General of the United Nations to send a technical commission to accompany the electoral process for a new parliament, [and] a new national assembly on December 6.”
Image: Adela Raz (left), Vice-President of the 75th session of the General Assembly and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the United Nations, chairs the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fifth session. At right is Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.